SGU Episode 460

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SGU Episode 460
May 3rd 2014
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SGU 459                      SGU 461

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


El: Elise Andrew

Quote of the Week

The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they've found it.

Terry Pratchett

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, April 30th 2014 and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson.

R: Hello Everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

J: Hey Guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Oh good evening my dear friends, how are you?

R: Helloooooo.

S: So nine years.

E: Nine years.

R: Oh, dear god.

B: Oh my god.

J: What, today's the day?

E: Longer than most marriages.

S: This is it. This is our nine year anniversary.

R: This is more than twice as long as the longest relationship I've ever been in.

E: You're welcome, it's been great. It's been a great nine years. It went fast. Did it seem fast to you guys?

B: Wow.

R: Yeah, we haven't even needed counseling our anything.

E: Not yet, no. (Inaudible) ten.

J: Yeah of course it went fast, but man I feel, I feel it. I feel the work, I definitely feel like we've been doing a lot of stuff.

R: Really?

J: Yeah.

R: I don't. I always. whenever someone's like, oh I started listening to you guys when I was a teenager, and I'm how the eff old are you right now?

S: Oh it's weirder than that. It's like when you have a 16 year old saying that he's been listening to us since he was 8, you know.

R: Yeah, it's creepy and weird. Stop doing that.

S: His whole life.

B: So what do you say guys, do we stop after a decade? Do we keep going after that, what's the deal here?

S: Well, we've been renewed for another year.

R: Oh my god.

E: OK.

S: I thought I would inform you all of that.

R: At twice our salary.

J: I have an interesting question, guys. Do you think you're a lot better as a skeptic and an understander of science today than you were nine years ago?

S: Oh yeah.

R: Yeah, definitely.

E: Without a doubt, without a doubt.

B: I think I was way better back then.

S: Have you listened to any of the episodes from our first year any time recently?

J: Not very recently, but I have.

E: It's been a few years.

J: You could totally see how we learned a skill set here and how we learned not only how to be podcasters but just how to read news articles and digest them.

R: I'll never forget listening to the first episode for the first time after I'd already been on the show and I'm like, oh my god, these guys are total amateurs. It's was like, Bob you've got to turn up your microphone.


S: So do you guys want to do something special for the 10 year anniversary?

B: Oh yeah we have to, really have to.

E: Yes, yes.

S: Like another 24 hour show or something?

B: Yeah, yeah, yeah I'm up for it.

R: Oh, god.

B: Maybe 12 hours. 12, 12, 12.

E: Yes, I'll vote.

R: 12, I'll do 12.

E: I'm good for 24 so anything less than 24 I'm obviously good for.

J: I'm not doing 24.

S: Lightweights.

E: Come on even Kiefer Sutherland is coming back for 24, let's go.

B: Screw that man, I'll do 30 hours, let's go.

E: 30?

J: Oh my god.

E: I'll do 30 and a half.

J: I think we could do a nice 6 or 12 hour show.

S: Alright I'll put it on the schedule.

(Rebecca groans)

(Jay laughs)).

B: It's just a matter of when, now.

S: Sometime in May 2015.

E: Hey Steve, would this be an appropriate time to say something to the listeners who have been with us for the better part of 9 years?

S: No, it would be totally inappropriate.

E: Well then I'm going to keep my damn mouth shut.

R: If it's anything other than "what is wrong with you?"

S: No this ride of course would be nothing without our loyal listeners, they've really been fantastic, at live events, sending us emails, participating in our social media, on the forums, yeah it's really been great.

B: Oh come on, we would have quit long ago if it weren't for them. We get so re-engergized whenever we go to a conference that it really helps you keep going and the incredible emails we get, I mean that's such a huge part of it.

S: Well let's go on and do show number 460 to close out our 9 years. Rebecca, you're going to start with This Day in Skepticism.

This Day in Skepticism (3:51)[edit]

R: In 1997, on May the 3rd, Manuel Elizalde at the age of 60 died. Do you guys know Manuel Elizalde?

B: Yes.

E: No.

B: Ya do now.

R: He is faintly known, but he should be maybe a little bit more well known because his is an interesting story. Elizalde, Manuel Elizalde Junior actually, was a Filipino, he was a member of a very wealthy Filipino family who claimed to have discovered the Tasaday people who he claimed were a sort of stone age people who had had no interaction with the modern world, who had no word for war, and other various claims.

S: So you're saying they weren't a modern stone-age family.


R: In a way they kind of were, I guess. Yeah.

S: OK. They drove cars by running their feet out the bottom.

R: They had a Pterodactyl sink, yes.

S: A mammoth vacuum cleaner.

R: As you do. It's difficult to say even now, this is why I like this story, because it's difficult to say whether or not Elizalde was completely full of crap. There is a chance that the Tasaday people were real, there are anthropologists who Elizalde allowed to interact with the Tasaday people and who came back saying, "Yeah these people were completely cut off from other societies." And there are many, many other people, many other scientists who say that this is ridiculous, that the Philippines are, yes there's dense jungle and it can get very difficult to get around, but still there were other tribes very close by the Tasadays that it would be basically impossible.

B: Three hour walk, right?

R: Yeah, about a three hour walk, and it would be basically impossible for these people to go for centuries, if not millennia, without interacting with anybody else, like Elizalde claimed that these people didn't even think that there was anyone alive outside of their small sphere, they thought that they were the only people on Earth. And to a lot of scientists, that was completely and utterly ridiculous. Adding to the mystery, Elizalde was a well-known party boy, it would be like George W Bush I guess, style, like...

S: He's going to be president?

R: Or, I'm trying to think of who else would be a good example of, you know, a well known, wealthy, politically connected family, he was like the bad boy partier.

E: Caligula?

R: Uh...

E: Not that bad, maybe.

R: No, maybe not that bad. Then, after claiming to discover the Tasaday, he and his wife became really fervent protectors of the local environment and of the Tasaday and other indigenous peoples. They went out of their way to put restrictions on logging companies and things to sort of protect these areas, which a lot of people saw as a kind of the universal good.

Yeah, to this day anthropologists and other scientists still aren't sure if the Tasaday really were the "stone-age people" that Elizalde claimed. As of right now, like over the past several decades, they've obviously been introduced to modern society if they weren't before, to the point where one of them actually tried to sue anthropologists who accused them of being fakes, possibly on Elizalde's urging, but who knows?

So at this point it's impossible to say, but back then, Anthropologists complained there were a number of things missing from the story, like no researchers had free and open access to the Tasaday, Elizalde and the Markos administration severely restricted any kind of access and then some of the anthropologists that did have access said that there was a lack of things like middens.

B: Yes.

R: Which are like trash heaps that are the expected by-product of people who are living in one spot for many centuries, if not millennia. So things like that were suspiciously missing. I feel like the consensus is leaning towards like mostly a hoax at this point.

S: That's what it sounds like. Interesting.

News Items[edit]

Neuromorphic Computing (8:56)[edit]

S: Well Jay, tell me about neuromorphic computing, sounds interesting.

J: Isn't that a cool term? I haven't heard something that cool come out in quite a while – neuromorphic computing. So, this was developed in the late 1980's by a man named Carver Mead. And it's a system that contains analog circuits that replicate neurobiological architectures that are found in the human brain. And a recent article written by Kwabena Boahen outlines how bioengineers at Stanford University have created a microchip that's based on the human brain!

So, as an example, a mouse's brain is about 9000 times faster than a personal computer simulating the functions of a mouse brain. And this coupled with the fact that computers are amazingly inefficient, and they take about 40,000 times more power to run than living brain tissue, which is an enormous creation of heat, and not only loss of energy, but it's very difficult to deal with, in particular if you wanted to ever use anything. Any kind of computer circuitry inside of a human body for example, produces heat, and that's not good.

So Boahen's team created something that they call a "neurogrid;" and this is an integrated circuit board. And it's about the size of an iPad. And it has 16 custom chips on it that they call "neuro-core chips." And if you take a look at a picture of it, it looks pretty standard. It looks like a mother board for your regular computer except this thing is quite special. These 16 chips simulate about a million neurons, and also billions of synaptic connections.

So, to give you a sense of scale, the human brain has a hundred billion neurons. And they're only simulating a million neurons. So, you know, it's much, much, much smaller, and much, much, much less powerful than a human brain. But it is a fantastically interesting start.

So the point to the development of the technology, though, is it significantly lowers the energy usage, and that's why I was talking about this before. So, the neurogrid board uses about 3 watts, and the vast majority of power used by a PC is lost in heat, so the average heat output of this thing is pretty low. An average PC today uses about 250 watts of power.

The human brain uses about 24 watts of power. And now, keep in mind that the brain is doing 100,000 times more work. So, if you were to try to simulate a human brain using today's computer technology and they way that it uses energy, the power consumption would be 250,000 households. That's amazing, right? That's a ton of power, and think of all the heat that would get put off by that.

So, usage for this kind of hardware would be – like I said – it's like a cyborg's wet and dry dream.

E: So, this is analog technology, and because it's analog, it uses less power.

J: Well, yeah, I'm pretty sure that that's why it uses less power.

S: Well, it's hard to say. So, my understanding is that the fact that it's analog is based on the fact that the connections are variable. So, digital technology basically means it's a 1 or a 0, right? The circuit's either open or closed. And then the computer language is built out of this binary code of 1's and 0's.

The analog connections that they make, there's a variable amount of voltage across the connection. It could be any value along the range of voltage. And the voltage equals the strength of the connection. So that's how it's mimicking neuronal connections, because neuronal connections also are not just on or off. There's a completely analog, variable strength of the neuronal connection from one to the next.

So, that's interesting because you hear analog, and it sounds antiquated to us, right? Because we're living in a digital world. We lived through the analog to digital revolution, where digital was better; so we're kind of biased just in thinking about that. But it's really just two ways of processing information, and it may be that analog connections are more efficient. And they certainly are more similar to how our brains work.

J: So, a couple more interesting things about this. So, right now, if you wanted to manufacture this board, the scientists were saying that it costs about $40,000. If it were to be mass marketed, mass production, they could bring that down to about $400, and that's a fantastic price for something that powerful.

So, I would imagine that over the years of them continuing to develop this that the price would go down, and the power, the ability of it, how much it could do would go up.

S: Yeah, why not? I mean, the computer technology has been advancing so steadily, it's gonna continue at least for a while, and then we'll have to shift to some new technology. But there's so many things in the works, I don't think we're gonna hit a wall any time soon.

J: And, did you know Steve that there are about as many neurons in the human brain as there are stars in our galaxy?

S: I did. About 100 billion.

B: Didn't Tyson say that in the last episode of Cosmos? (Evan laughs) I heard that. I forget what...

R: Stop stealing from Tyson.

J: And they're about as many stars in our galaxy as there are galaxies in the universe?

B: Visible universe, yes.

S: Visible universe, yep.

Mixing Supplements and Meds (13:56)[edit]

S: Alright, Evan, so I understand a lot of people take supplements and don't necessarily disclose that to their physician, or worry about mixing it with their regular medication.

E: Yeah, you're right, Steve. This is something we've talked about before on the show. And now, Reuters has reported on this new study, which reveals that one in three adults in the United States is taking both prescription medications and dietary supplements at the same time. They referenced a study from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. And Harris Leiberman was one of the lead authors of this. He's from the military nutrition division of the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine based out of Natick, Massachusetts. That's cool, I never knew that that place even existed. And here's what he had to say:

Multivitamins are commonly assumed to be safe, but our analysis suggests multivitamins, which may include multivitamin plus combination products can also contain botanical and herbal ingredients that have the potential to interact with prescription medications.

And the most common of these supplements are, that people are consuming with their prescription meds are herbs and fish oil, surprise, surprise. The researchers focused on 10,480 adults. Overall, 34% of the participants were taking some kind of dietary supplement along with a prescription medication. And if you extrapolate that out into the US population, that equals 72 million people, assuming that many people are actually on some kind of medication.

Now, from the abstract from the study, it reads, "The prevalence of use was significantly higher among those with versus without a doctor informed medical condition. 47.3% versus 17.3%." And, essentially, what they're saying is, for the people who have been diagnosed with a condition by their doctor, they're more likely to be taking some sort of dietary supplement with their prescription medicine than without.

S: Yeah, it's really scary. Remember, we've talked about herbal supplements a lot on this show before. If you remember, I think the most recent time we talked about it, it was based upon a study that was looking at what's in the supplements.

So, the term "supplement's" a little problematic here. Because I think medically, scientifically, technically, a supplement is something that you should get in your food, or that occurs naturally in the body, but you're taking extra to supplement how much you're getting, just through normal means. But, in the United States, herbal drugs are regulated as supplements; so when you're using the term supplement as a regulatory term, you're talking about vitamins, minerals, but also herbal drugs. And herbs are drugs, make no mistake.

In the study looking at the contents, the problem is they're drugs that are incredibly poorly regulated. So, 59% of the products tested contained plant species not on the labels. Only 48%, could they authenticate what was supposed to be in there. And a third of those contained contaminants or fillers not listed on the label.

Product substitution occurred in 30 out of 44 products. Tested in only 2 out of 12 companies had products without any substitution containing contamination or fillers. That's terrible.

E: It's disconcerting. And, Steve, you know, people can ... well, die!

S: In extreme cases.

E: In extreme cases. There have been cases.

S: The more you study the herbal products, the more you realize they have all same drug-drug interactions that other drugs do. You know, St. John's Wart, which is used as an antidepressant actually does have some antidepressant effects. You know why? Because it has an NAO inhibitor in it, which is an antidepressant. But it's a drug. It's actually a dirty drug we don't use any more because it has horrible drug-drug interactions and side effects!

So, and St. John's Wart is notorious for affecting other drugs. And, but people, if they think that, "Oh, this is an herbal supplement. I don't have to worry about it, or talk to my physician about it, or worry about interactions." That's the danger; it's the false sense of security because of the way it's regulated and marketed.

Microbial Doom (18:13)[edit]

S: Bob, I know you're a fan of the micro biota and bacteria; but now you're gonna tell us ...

B: And archea.

S: And archea, but now you're gonna tell us about how microbes doomed the Earth – doomed I tell you!

B: Well, and of course, ironically, authored our existence in a way. But, this is the mystery of the great dying, otherwise known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event. The biggest of its kind. May have ultimately been caused, as Steve implied, caused by methane producing micro-organisms. Now, this latest theory has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by MIT professor of geophysics, Daniel Rothman, post-doc Gregory Fournier, and five other researchers at MIT and in China. And I think it's extremely interesting.

Now, you guys have probably heard, I'm sure, we've probably even mentioned it a few times, we've talked about the Great Dying. About 252 million years ago. But you may not know how quite widespread and movie-worthy it really was. I mean, this was an epic event by all accounts. I mean, we're talking 96% of all marine species going extinct, 70% of terrestrial vertebrates, 83% of all genera everywhere; and also, I wasn't quite aware of this; or maybe I forgot it, but it was also the only known massive extinction of insects! Did you hear about that one, Steve?

S: Yeah.

B: I wasn't aware. Yeah, the only time they had, they suffered a massive extinction. It was so nasty, in fact, that it took 10 million years for the Earth to recover in terms of approaching the levels of biodiversity that it once had. So, pretty Earth changing, you might say.

So, almost anybody looking at the rock layer difference between the Permian and the Triassic, they would say, "Yep, something big happened right here." It's very obvious. Geologists have, in the 19th century were aware that something special happened. Now, of course, with modern tools, we know that if you look at these differences chemically, you'll see a difference between the balance of carbon isotopes.

So, basically, there's a shift away from the heavier isotopes of carbon to the lighter ones as you get into the Triassic rock layers. It's not much of a shift; I mean, percentage-wise, I think it's only about 1%; but it's enough to probably do what it did.

So, the next question, of course, is what caused this balance shift? Now, there's lots of theories that have been put forth. But it seems to me that volcanic eruptions have been a prime suspect for a while. Why? That's because volcanism occurred at epic levels at that time. Spock would have been very, very proud if he was around then.

The Siberian Traps saw intense volcanism for a million – a million – years of volcanism! More than any other in geological record. It just, nothing approaches that. It seems cut and dried. Of course, we have this crack in the crust spewing lava, covering half a continent! Of course that could cause it, but the numbers don't work when you crunch them, specifically about this. There just weren't sufficient eruptions. As many as there were, there just weren't enough to account for the extent of the carbon changes that we see.

And number 2, the other one, is that the pattern of carbon change does not match what we would expect by volcanoes alone. Now, the pattern we would expect from a volcano is a very rapid increase of carbon dioxide, then a gradual decrease. And we see almost the opposite. It continues to increase even greater, faster than exponentially. I mean, it just keeps getting more, and more, and more. And volcanoes in our experience and knowledge wouldn't behave that way.

That actually is the hallmark of microbial activity though, because it's one of the few ways to increase carbon production exponentially or even faster. Was it a micro-organism that's responsible this? Well, one of researchers was aware, specifically, because of his work at NASA, that at that time in history when this extinction happened, there was a major genetic innovation by some micro-organisms to produce methane more efficiently, and more copiously than ever before.

Now, it was not a bacterium, but it was an archea called, Methanosarcina. This methanogen is found in a lot of places today, like in oil, in sewage; also in animals that produce a lot methane, like cattle, and Jay. (Rebecca snickers) So, to support his idea, the scientist did a deep dive ...

S: Thanks Rebecca.

R: (Laughs) I thought that was very funny! I don't know.

B: I don't get many good chuckles from her, Jay. Just give it to me, dude. And I'm not done, by the way. (Evan laughs) So, to support his idea, that, the scientist did a deep dive into the genetics of different methanogens. They used a special calibrated clock-like algorithm to date when the specific efficient, new methane producing, metabolic pathways evolved. And, guess what day they came up with? 240 million years ago, give or take 40 million years, of course. Right around the Great Dying event.

So that's, to me, that's a key bit of evidence that they were able to actually determine, "Wow! This new metabolic pathway evolved right around that time that this dying did. Very key bit of evidence.

So, another bit of supporting evidence is the unusually large smorgasboard at the bottom of the ocean, waiting, just apparently waiting for this methanogen to come and just gobble it up. There was a tremendous amount of organic carbon from dead organisms that just, you know, when an organism in the ocean dies, they just float, they just sink to the bottom. And they become incorporated in the sediment.

Like, just formed this huge, an immense amount of this material that this methanogen would love. So, now, we have a mega mutant methanogen, with a huge food supply, and it reproduced like crazy, and began overturning the carbon cycle. When you have an exponential process, like this - it does happen occasionally – but usually, something will stop it. Something will short circuit it, like, for example, the food source runs out.

Well, that's not gonna happen in this case, because there was so much of it. What could have ended it for this specific micro-organism, though, is nickel. Just the element nickel could have completely ended it, because this, that microbe needs nickel to make key metabolic enzymes. Without it, game over, this never would have happened, probably. Or, well, I guess there's some argument on that. Things would have changed. But it was very, very, important. And it's typically in very short supply in the ocean.

But, guess what? More supporting evidence. Siberia has the biggest deposits of nickel in the world. And why is that? Because the volcanic eruptions at that time were spewing nickel everywhere. The methanosarcina population began to multiply. It was able, you know, it had a source of food. It had a much more efficient way of producing methane.

So, much of that methane produced by them was converted into carbon dioxide. And that causes a rise in the carbon dioxide levels in the ocean. Now, rising carbon dioxide levels in the ocean, that has an effect of driving down the amount of oxygen in the water. And yet again, this methanogen loved it because it's anaerobic. So that means that less oxygen, this guy thrived even more! And this is one of the reasons why the scientists think that this thing reproduced beyond exponentially, because of this one, little, final thing that was in its favor, that totally helped it out.

So now, at the very end, here, you've got very high levels of carbon dioxide, and that results in an acidic ocean, an ocean that's highly acidic wipe - can wipe out an organisms with shells. They can't create those shells in that type of an environment.

And then, from there, you've got this incredible domino effect that progresses to many other species, that also fall, and that's just the marine life. That doesn't even really take into account things, the global warming that would have a result for the vertebrates on the land, and just a huge, huge mess.

Keep in mind though, that this, the theory seems very strong – and it does to me, anyway – it's not a done deal by any means. Geologist David Bottjer of the University of Southern California, he said, "It's a novel idea, that will need a lot of testing to see if it has legs." Of course; that's how science works.

S: So, Bob, what you're saying is that bacteria producing methane can be deadly.

B: Well, kinda, but not bacteria.

R: Don't oversimplify, Bob's (Bob laughs) news item.

J: Can you,

S: I just want to know how careful I need to be hanging around Jay.

J: Yeah, I mean, Bob, seriously, can you kill yourself with your own farts?

R: Tell us about dangers of (inaudible)

(Bob laughs)

E: And open flames.

B: Oh man.

E: Okay.

S: Were these bacteria silent but deadly?

R: Oh, god.

(Evan laughs)

B: Archea.

Marketing Organic (27:29)[edit]

S: So, what do you guys think about organic farming?

R: Eh. It's fine.

B: It's evil!

E: What's in organic farming? I mean ...

J: Well, it doesn't seem to be the things that people really wanted it to be, right? I thought organic farming meant local; I thought less pesticides; or less toxicity from the chemicals that they use.

E: That's part of the point is that it's never been defined properly.

S: No, it has been defined, Evan. The USDA has a very strict labeling criteria for organic, starting in around 2001. That organic farming has really taken off since then. But, I think, you know, you guys are bringing up some legitimate points that it's not exactly what people think it is.

There was recently a paper published by Academics Review. I had not heard about this organization before. Apparently, it was started by two PhD food and nutrition scientists, and it seems to be on the up and up. I don't think they're hiding some agenda. They seem to just be interested in promoting scientific evaluation of food and nutrition.

They wrote a review article looking at the practices of the organic industry over, in recent years. And essentially, what they, alright, here's a quote from the paper. They argue that, "Our review suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research informed, and intentionally deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the US government endorsed USDA organic seal."

Now, what they are saying, and if you read the whole paper, which we'll link to, it's pretty well documented that there has been a deliberate campaign of misinformation aimed at public opinion that is not supported by scientific evidence, essentially. The purpose of which was to expand the organic market. Because the organic market is extremely profitable. Farms make more money growing food organically than they do conventionally because you can charge three times as much on average.

B: And pay a lot less in pesticides.

S: Well, here's the thing; that's not necessarily true, Bob.

B: Really! Really!

S: So, organic farms are allowed to use pesticides; they just have to use natural pesticides.

B: Oh!

E: Oh, gosh!

B: Okay. Natural, define those.

S: They can't use synthetic pesticides, but there have been numerous studies showing that essentially, the natural pesticides are presumed safe; they're not tested the same way synthetic ones are, because they're natural. But when they are tested ...

B: You're kidding!

S: They're just as toxic as the synthetic ones, but they're not as effective, and in fact, they're worse for the environment because you have to use more of them!

E: Great.

B: Otherwise, they're (inaudible)

S: The June 2010 paper, yeah, there was a study that was done, where they looked specifically at different ... this is a University of Guelph study that looked at organic versus conventional pesticide use, published in Plos One, and they showed that the organic pesticide use was worse for the environment because less effective; they have to use more of it.

So, that's part of, so if you ask people, "Why do you buy organic?" The number 1 reason is to avoid pesticides. 95% of people (Bob laughs) in a UK survey said that they do it because they don't want pesticides on their food.

B: How ironic

E: So people are basically totally systematically misinformed about organic.

S: So, when you bring this up to the head of the Organic Trade Organization, whatever, they say, "Oh, that's not true. People want organic because it's good for the environment." Because when their back is to the wall, they have to, they can't say that the produce is any healthier, safer, or better for you, because there's no evidence to suggest that it is.

E: But it costs three times as much.

S: So, the organic label is entirely about the process, the farming process, not about the end result. It is in no way an evaluation of the end product. It's just, if you follow these practices, and don't follow these other practices, then you can get the organic label. So, with regard to pesticides, for example, so, you can't use synthetic pesticides.

So, of course, organic produce has fewer synthetic pesticides on them. So you'll read studies that show that it has fewer pesticides, but that's because they're testing for the synthetic ones. So, it's almost rigged up front to show that result.

But if you're concerned about those pesticides, just wash your fruits and vegetables. Now, it doesn't work for everything, but it will get rid of most pesticide residue. And the amount that's on foods is well below safety limits. So, it's ...

E: I was just gonna say, how many people have, get health problems due to the pesticide they're ingesting from their fruits and vegetables? A lot? I don't know!

S: No, I think none. I mean, you know,

E: Right!

S: unless you have a particular sensitivity. You know, some people have allergies, or whatnot. But the whole point is that it's, right. It's very carefully regulated, and that the amount of residues is far below safety limits. So you don't have to worry about it. And if you are worried about it, it's a lot cheaper to wash your fruits and vegetables, you know, than to pay three times as much for organic, which are using, probably using natural pesticides that are not being measured or tested for because they're presumed to be safe!

E: Wow! Why does the ... then why ... the government gives an air of legitimacy to all of this by coming up with these guidelines, regulations, and protocols that have to be adhered to in order to achieve this label which gives you no net benefit that I can see, anyway.

S: Exactly. That was also the criticism of the authors. So, at the time, there was, this was a controversial decision by the USDA. They were criticized specifically because they said that, "If you have a USDA organic seal of approval, the public will interpret this as a seal of some kind of quality or superiority." As if the organic produce is somehow superior or more healthful or safer than conventional.

And there was market research that showed at the time that that would be the case. And the USDA chose to ignore that, and to go ahead with the seal in any case. They argued that, "We're not endorsing the product; we're just saying that the label has to have some meaning, and so we're going to regulate the label." And they also were interested in opening up foreign markets to US organic farmers, you know. So, by having a regulated label, it allowed for, it eased the route for foreign markets as well.

And, essentially, what the organic label means is, "No GMO; no irradiation; no synthetic pesticides; no synthetic fertilizers. So, also, people buy organic because they think it's more healthful and nutritious, and this study showed that that's not the case. We have 50 years of research showing there's no health outcome differences between organic and conventional produce. And same thing for nutritional content! The nutritional content is no different between the two.

There are some studies that – I have reviewed a lot of this literature – and there's no consensus. There's no clear, even the Organic Trade Association says, "The jury is still out." But those studies that do show that there's a higher concentration of certain nutrients in some organic food compared to conventional, the easiest explanation for that is that organic produce tends to be smaller. And therefore everything is more concentrated.

B: Ah.

S: So, you're not necessarily getting more nutrients. You're just getting them in a smaller package, so they're higher concentration; does that make sense?

People buy organic because they think it's better for the environment, it's not; it's safer, it's not; it tastes better, it doesn't; it's more nutritious, it isn't; and these are all misconceptions that have been deliberately promoted, according to these authors, by organic farmers, and organic proponents, despite the fact that the scientific evidence doesn't support any of those claims.

Who's That Noisy (35:34)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Debbie Berebichez

S: Alright, Evan; well, it's time once again for Who's That Noisy!

E: Thank you, doctor, and I will play for you last week's Who's That Noisy. Here we go.

?: (Female voice with Mexican accent) Common symptoms of being a skeptic can be rejection, frustration, isolation, and even anger.

E: Yeah, you know, I suppose I've gone through a few of those at certain points in my skeptical career.

S: Um hmm.

E: You know, she spoke at the NECSS conference in 2012.

R: Never heard of it.

E: (Laughs) The North East Conference in Science and Skepticism, Dr. Debbie Berebichez. From her website, a highly motivated, multi-talented young woman with a strong interest in the world of science and media communications. She successfully completed a PhD in physics at Stanford University, the first Mexican woman to ever do so!

And she's a hell of a nice person, and a excellent presenter, and a wonderful advocate for science and science communication. She does a really nice job at what she does. So,

S: Well, she was at NECSS this year!

E: 2014 as well!

S: And she's on the committee that helps run NECSS.

B: Isn't she also on Outrageous Acts of Science, the TV show? They basically take videos from the internet showing these amazing feats of daring-do, and they explain the physics behind it. It's really cool.

E: So, Dr. B, well done. This week's winner is Wilko, Wilko Shutzendorf.

R: Oh my god, I love Wilko.

(Jay laughs)

E: You know Wilko?

R: Yeah, I saw the documentary, I own all their albums.

E: Yeah, cool!

R: I'm trying to break your heart's one of the greatest songs ever made.

E: I think Wilko's his middle name. His first name's Roger.

B: Roger, Wilko?

E: Wilko is this week's winner. Well done!

S: What do ya got for this week, Evan?

E: We have three clips that I strung together. And your challenge this week is to not only identify who the three people are, that are talking in this clip, but you have to identify what is the common thread between the three of them? There's something about science and / or skepticism that binds these three people together. So, let's go ahead and play that now.

?: (Male) The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart.

??: (Another male) I haven't seen you my whole life, and now you come back and just expect a relationship? I hate you!

???: (A third male) So, first, a group of tiny creatures. Among the first lifeforms on Earth! Bacteria, responsible for keeping our own ecosystem checking over, but when they attack us, it's an ugly sight.

E: Okay? Identify the three, and tell us what the common thread is. is the website for official Who's That Noisy answers and submissions, and any sort of commentary you want to send along, please do. Good luck everyone.

S: Alright, thanks Evan.

E: Thank you.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Energy (38:36)[edit]

S: We have a great interview coming up with Elise Andrew from IFLScience. But we're gonna do just one quick email. This one comes from David Young, who is a huge friend and supporter currently living in Hong Kong. You guys remember David, right? We actually ...

R: Yeah.

J: Absolutely!

E: Oh yes!

S: Spent some time with him at NECSS last year. David writes,

I recently read an advertisement for a skin care product that claimed 'Suddenly, skin is full of energy . . .'It got me thinking; is there any means of getting energy into our body other than consuming calories? And when I say energy, I mean the capacity to perform work.Steve, I think I remember you saying this on one of your 'Great Courses' lectures but I wanted to confirm. Specifically I'd like to know if caffeine gives us energy or simply increases our metabolism.I also remember 'energy' was the word Rebecca selected at last year's (2013) NECSS as being misunderstood by the general public. Please lift the veil just a little more.

So, David, you're correct. The only way to get energy into your body is to eat foods that have calories. There are four kinds of foods that have calories. Do you guys know what they are?

J: Absolutely!

E: Meat, grains,

R: Chocolate.

J: Hamburgers

E: Fruits and vegetables. People.

J: Meatballs.

R: Beer.

J: All different kinds of pasta, they all have pretty much the same thing.

S: So, there are fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and alcohol.

R: I called it! I already said beer.

S: So you have to feed into either glycolysis or the Krebs cycle.

R: I thought alcohol counted as a carb, though.

S: Well, it feeds into the Krebs cycle directly. It's not technically a carbohydrate.

B: Well, if memory serves, it does have an intermediate amount of calories between carbohydrates and fat, like 7 calories a gram, I think?

S: Yeah, yeah.

R: I've been talking about the Krebs cycle a lot with my fellow skepchick bloggers, actually, because of recent news that a man has said that he goes out drinking, but eats active yeast cultures before he does so.

E: Oh, yeah.

R: In order to not get drunk. And we've had a very interesting conversation on why that's mostly bullshit.

S: Yeah, so basically, the metabolism creates ATP, which is the energy currency in your body from ...

B: Adenosine triphosphate. Good stuff, man; love it.

(Evan laughs)

S: And

R: Delicious

S: There's two basic ways that your body does this. There's anaerobic glycolysis, which is essentially directly metabolising sugar – glucose – into lactic acid without the use of oxygen – anaerobically. And then that gets fed into the Krebs cycle, which uses oxygen in order to create ATP. It's much more efficient. The aerobic respiratory chain is much more efficient way of making energy. So, you get, that's why we need oxygen to live! Even though ourselves can make a little bit of energy without it, it's not nearly as much as with oxygen.

So, you need to feed into that somehow. And the only things that do that are the ones that I mentioned, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, or alcohol. That's it. Now, things like caffeine have no calories. They don't give your body any energy. It is a stimulant. So it does increase metabolism, but actually, you get very tolerant to that effect very quickly. Takes only three weeks to get tolerant to the stimulant effect from caffeine. Did you know that?

B: Yes!

R: Did not know that.

E: No, nope. I did not.

S: And then after that, you're basically just staving off your caffeine withdrawal. Alright, well, thanks for that question, David.

Elise Andrew (43:45)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Elise Andrew. Elise, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

El: Thank you for having me.

S: And, Elise, you are the creator of a wonderful website called, I Fucking Love Science, which is extremely popular. So, you know, we really fucking love this website. It's just great.

(Bob laughs)

J: Yeah, I think it's fucking awesome.

S: So, how the fuck did you start the whole thing, anyway?


E: Honestly, I don't really remember it that clearly. I guess because at the time, it didn't seem like anything important at all. I've always been somebody that read a lot. I was comfortably reading science magazines, and science articles, and science books; and I was always finding out cool stuff. And I just plastered my own wall with it every day on Facebook.

And I guess it started to annoy some people, because one day a friend popped up and suggested that I start a page, because that way people could subscribe to it if they wanted to, and if they didn't, they wouldn't have to. And I thought, "That's a great idea!" And I made it, and I uploaded all the content. I've been posting (inaudle) on the page, links, and there's a great (inaudible) pictures.

And then the next day, had 1000 likes. And the day after that, it was 2000, and then it was 50,000 after a month. And now it's been two years, and there's 13 and a half million people on there.

B: Wow.

S: So you did it to not annoy people?

El: Pretty much, yeah.

E: Did you accomplish your goal?

El: Except now, now there's so many people reposting it constantly, that, but yeah, I think they're just as annoyed with it as ever!

S: So now you get to annoy millions of people.

El: I do, yeah, it's great.

S: So, mission accomplished.

El: They all feel a need to email me, and tell me how annoying I am.

J: I'm curious; I have definitely been on your Facebook page over 1 or 2 million times. I'm constantly getting links from it, or people who are retweeting and reposting it, or whatever. It's infused into my social media experience at this point. So, where do you find your content? Are you constantly trolling? Do you get a lot of it submitted? Or, are you finding it on your own?

El: Well, I think, probably about a year ago, the ratio shifted. It used to be me just constantly trolling, constantly finding this stuff. And now I get upwards of 2 or 300 emails a day from people asking me to post their stuff. Whether they're journalists who have written an article, or bloggers who've written a blog, or people who have done a podcast or a YouTube video, or photographers, or web comic artists, because obviously, it can generate obscene amounts of traffic.

I mean, I've started to break every website I link to these days. So people get very

B: Wow

El: sensitive, when their content goes up on there. Yeah, I actually created my own website solely for the purpose of being able to maintain my own server space.

J: So, Elise, you've had some growing pains with your website and technology, but from what I've read and also heard in interviews, that you've had some problems with people harassing you because you're a woman. Is that true, or...

El: Yeah, about a year ago, the internet found out I was a girl, and it kinda lost its shit. It was awesome. It shouldn't have been that surprising. You know, 50% of people are women. The odds weren't that extreme, really.

R: No, but there's no women on the internet. That's what I've been told repeatedly. So...

(Jay laughs)

El: Maybe they just all keep quiet, and I'm starting to understand why.

R: Right.

E: And certainly women who like science; I mean, that just doesn't happen! Ever!

R: Yeah. Yeah.

El: The thing is, it does, doesn't it? Most of the writers and bloggers I speak to, a lot of them, most of them, easily 60% of them are women! So, I don't understand where this idea comes from, that there are no women talking about science, because it's just, in my experience, it's completely not true.

J: I think, maybe, it comes from the idea that they just assume that you were a male, that a lot of people that produce content are men. And after they grew to appreciate and frequent your page, when they found out, it bothered some people, right? I can't think of any other reason.

B: Cognitive dissonance?

El: It did bother some people, but I think some people were pleased as well. I got a lot of messages telling me, you know, "I didn't realize I had this bias, but I did think you were a guy. So, thank you for making me aware of this in myself. I'll be more aware of it in the future." And I think that's important, because we all do have these biases. It's natural.

The important thing is to be aware of them, and to not get complacent in them. You need to be complete, constantly reminding yourself that these things, you know, it's bullshit! These aren't real.

J: Yeah, we have, they're built in. We're born with them. Growing up, I thought all doctors were men, right? It was just culturally.

S: But, Jay, I wouldn't say you're born with it. That's culturally learned. That's completely learned.

El: But I think those biases are the result of our environment.

S: Yeah, having bias is inborn. But what you're biased about, yeah, is cultural. Yeah, absolutely. So, you were an accidental celebrity, it sounds like.

El: Very much so.

S: And, also an accidental role model, trail blazer, you know, as a woman, prominent science promoter on the internet. It shouldn't be an issue, but the fact that it is an issue is an issue. How do you feel about all of that? You happy this all happened? Is it, you know, any regrets?

El: Quite overwhelmed, if I'm honest. I'm not, I'm a bit of an introvert; I'm a bit of a home body. I like being at home. So the idea of suddenly everybody's calling me and asking to fly around the world and do interviews and stuff. It's all a bit much for me. And I just like being at home in front of my computer. Sometimes I just wish the world would leave me alone. (Chuckles) No, don't feel sorry for me!

R: We're sorry.

El: First world problems, right? Everybody loves me. Everybody wants me to go amazing places and talk to amazing people.

R: Well, it is really stressful, especially when it comes on at the same time as all of these people finding out you're a woman, and sending you; like, we were just talking about this before you came on. And I was saying that I feel like it's a 50 / 50 split where – not 50 / 50 – most people are fine with it. But then, the people who are not fine with it are 50 / 50, where it's like, "How dare you be a woman? And the other half are like, "Oh, good! You're a woman! Give me a blowjob and make me a sandwich. Ha! Ha!"

El: And most of it was like that. This original thread, I put; what happened was I put my Twitter page up on the Facebook page, and obviously it had a picture of me. It had my name on it. And that entire first thread, it was 10,000 comments of, "Oh my god! You're a woman! That's so hot!"

R: Yeah.

El: That's so sexy. This page has got a little bit sexier. Science just got a little bit sexier. I'm so into ... oh, god! It was so ... it was so creepy!

R: And that coming on the heels of, like, now go out and meet all these people. I mean, I would find that really horrible.

El: But I wasn't allowed to be upset about it. I get all these messages telling me that I should feel flattered. They're saying your attractive. They're saying you're good looking. You should feel good about this. And I'm thinking, "Seriously? There's 10,000 comments dissecting my appearance! Who wouldn't be uncomfortable with that?"

R: Yeah.

El: That does not make me feel good! It makes me want to shower!


J: Elise, how have your experiences been at conferences?

El: Conferences has been great. When I talk to the fellow science communicators, when I talk to scientists, it's fantastic! It's just every time I sort of venture out into anything else that it's a little bit frightening. Dealing with the public.

S: That's because it only takes a few psychopaths on the internet to really make the environment a negative experience.

El: Absolutely. Absolutely. And people feel bizarrely free to say really weird things. You know, I've always said if you wouldn't walk up to me in the street and say it, don't say it on the internet. If you wouldn't walk up to me and say, "Hey! You're Elise! I love your web page! By the way, 8 out of 10. Would bang." Don't say it in an internet comment.

S: Right.

B: Wow.

S: Yeah, it's anonymity and distance make people disinhibited.

El: Yep. Tell me about it.

S: So, what is your background, Elise, by the way?

El: I studied biology at Sheffield University, and I was actually still at university when it sort of kicked off. And then my plan was to go and do my Masters and my PhD. I was gonna take a year out and save up, and then everything kind of took off! And here I am!

S: And things are still developing. In addition to a website, the Facebook page, your Twitter feed, you have a YouTube channel, and now you're developing a TV program! Tell us about that.

El: Yes! Yes!

B: Wow.

El: Yeah, I'm really excited about that, actually. It's being developed with the Science Channel. Craig Ferguson is on board as Executive Producer, which I'm really excited about because I absolutely love him.

R: Awesome.

B: Ah! He's great!

El: Oh, he's so great! I was a little worried about it at first. You know, when they told me he was really keen to be involved, because I've never seen much American late night television, and they were saying, "Oh yeah! He's so great; he's so funny; he's so clever." And I was thinking, "Talk show host? Really! You know, it's a science program!"

And then I met him, and he's just; you know how some people just operate on a higher level than the rest of us? Their brains just move that little bit quicker.

R: Yeah.

E: Oh yeah.

El: He's just one of them.

B: He is! Really.

R: He's like our Jonathan Ross. He's very smart, and very interested in science.

B: I loved him when I discovered that he had a talking skeleton on his talk show. I mean, what else do you need to know?

S: But, so tell us a little bit about what the show's gonna be about, though. Can you describe it?

El: Oh god! We're still working on it! We're still trying to figure it out! I mean, the great thing about the page is that it's so electric, right? I can post about anything, right? One minute, it's jumping spiders, and the next minute, it's black holes! And then we're on to exploding whales. And then we're back over here to dark matter. It's just everything crammed in to one Facebook page.

So, trying to translate that to television is a bit overwhelming, I think. We've been working on it for a few months now, and I think it's starting to take shape. But I don't want to describe it, because it's perfectly possible that it'll change in two weeks.

S: Right, it's still a work in progress.

El: Yeah, very much so.

S: So, Elise, what's the best thing that's come out of the IFL Science page for you. What's the best thing that's happened to you, or that you've experienced as a result of it?

El: I guess I've been lucky enough to meet a lot of my heroes, which has been absolutely amazing. I mean, I get to do things, that's just, you know, I listen to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, and now I'm on it! That's amazing!

I get to meet Michio Kaku; and I get to meet Neil deGrasse Tyson; I got to meet Bill Nye and Richard Dawkins; You know, I had lunch and dinner with these people; it's ... and these are the people whose books I used to read. I used to watch on television. So that's pretty amazing to me.

S: So, what I heard was, being on the SGU.

R: Is the most amazing.


El: Yes.

E: And then you mentioned some other people.


S: Alright, that sounds good.

J: Elise, it's funny that when you meet them, you realize just how normal they are.

El: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Really, really, very much. Yeah, really, very much. They are all ordinary people, but they've all been really nice! Which probably is probably been a bit of an effect because I have a tendency to turn into a fan girl when I'm around people I really admire. I tend to be a bit of a moron and can't talk properly!

Like, I once confused the Chief Wardens of air in a text to Bill Nye, which I haven't done since I was 8 years old.

B: Oh!

El: But I did it in a text to Bill Nye.

R: Ouch.

El: It was awful! It was so bad!

R: I'm sure he was very forgiving though.

B: There we go. I think I would cry.

El: I had to text him right after. I'm not stupid. I swear, I'm actually really clever, I just don't act like it sometimes!

R: Aw...

(Jay laughs)

S: I mean, I think the good news is, is that most scientists, certainly most scientists that I know are actually really nice people who enjoy talking about their work, love talking about science; especially if they're science communicators.

El: Yeah, absolutely. Neil deGrasse Tyson is like that. You know, he's exactly like he is on television, and on radio. He talks like that all the time. And it's so brilliant! And Bill Nye's kind of like that as well. He'll just go off onto these completely mad, like, science tangents in the middle of a conversation.

R: Yeah.

El: So we could be talking about Facebook, and he'll go off into this great big science baseball tangent. It's brilliant.

R: They are both incredibly sweet guys.

El: They are.

R: Yeah.

J: And passionate. You know, I found after interviewing them that they, any topic you talk to them about, they're as equally passionate, and they get you riled up and excited, which is just awesome.

El: That's what it takes to be a great science communicator, right? To get people excited about this stuff; to get them jumping up and down. That's what I try and do on the Facebook page. That's the whole idea of the name, right? It's not just called, this is fucking brilliant! Have you seen this? This is so exciting!

J: There is something very special about your name. I mean, it does engage you immediately. It put me; I remember when I first heard it, I was like, "Wow! Someone had that balls to do that! That's so fucking awesome!" (Bob laughs) I loved it. It really did exactly that to me.

El: Oh, I love that word. I do. I think it's one of the best words in the English language. It is such an expressive word. It just adds such emphasis to everything. And as well, it's not quite as taboo in England as it is in America. I don't think I ever realized quite how upset some Americans get about that word. But it's not quite as much of a big deal in the UK.

Well, I did get a lot of parents writing to me and getting very upset about their teenage children being on Facebook and following the page; and they get very upset about it. And I always think, you know, "The worst thing your teenage son or daughter is looking at on the internet is a page called 'I Fucking Love Science?'"

S: Yes.

J: Right, yeah. They have the keys to the kingdom. Yeah. They could see any kind of crazy ass porn that's out there, but yet, they're reading a science page on Facebook. And they're taking issue with that. That's strange.

B: I'd give 'em a high five!

El: Yeah, exactly.

S: But you definitely tapped into a vibe, you know, with the name, with the whole ...

B: Yes

S: the whole page, the enthusiasm. It just, it's raw in a certain way.

B: I'm so pissed I didn't think of it.


El: Well, I hope so. I mean, that's why I still get so excited about this stuff. I mean, at least once a day something comes across my desk that makes me literally say, "I fucking love science!" I hope that comes across, and I hope that it gets a few other people saying the same thing.

S: Well, I just scream it from the virtual rooftops.

(Jay laughs)

El: That I would like to see.

J: Elise, I like the vision of you just comfortably sitting in your house, and bringing all this content together. I kind of see that in my future, you know, maybe. That's kind of where I'd like to be.

El: It's pretty awesome.

J: It really, there's something awesome about the power of the internet, where you could build an audience of that size, and engage that many people from your kitchen or your bedroom, or whatever. That is amazing.

El: I love social media. I really do. I think it's got such power. It has. it can literally change the world through social media, and I think that's really exciting. It gives everybody a voice. Everybody. It doesn't matter who you are; it doesn't matter what you've done. If you've got something to say, you can find a place to say it. And people will listen, if you keep at it.

S: Yeah, I mean, definitely. The strength of the internet and social media is that the barriers are down, and it's just a meritocracy of content, you know?

El: Absolutely!

S: Anyone. If you can make a Facebook page, right, with no investment but your time and enthusiasm.

El: Yeah, I mean, that's the good of it and the bad of it, there, right. There's an awful lot of nonsense out there. The amount of pages that get sent to me every day that promote all this conspiracy theory pseudoscience crap; the amount of nonsense that gets passed around on Facebook is astonishing! The stuff about the super fruit that cures cancer that got a million shares on Facebook.

S: Yeah.

B: A million?

El: A million! My maximum has been 250,000. And some shit about super fruit curing cancer got a million! I mean, are you kidding me with this? I (inaudible) shit!

J: You know, the problem is we're fighting this innate thing that humans have to feel good; like, the warm, fuzzy feeling is so strong. And it really does power this stuff.

El: Well, that's what I try to do. And then I try to sort of slip in the harder stuff in there. It's almost like hiding the vegetables in the good stuff. You know, I put up a lot of fluffy stuff, and a lot of jokes, and a lot of silly things, and it lures people in slowly and gently; and then bam! Got vaccination stuff all, lots of things! Revolutionary, yeah!


B: Quantum mechanics? Cool!


J: What's your favorite field?

El: It's always gonna be biology for me. It's what I studied, and it's what, well, hopefully go back and end up doing a PhD in some day. Ecology and evolution. I love evolutionary biology; it was what first got me excited about science, and it still does to this day.

S: Yeah, that was my first real science love, too, evolution. Astronomy and evolutionary biology were my two. Those are the ones that transported to another time and place, you know?

J: Elise, do you like sci-fi?

El: I like some sci-fi. It depends. I'm a huge Doctor Who fan. (Bob laughs) Love Doctor Who, but then I am British, so that's kind of (inaudible)

R: Yeah, stereotypical.

El: Yeah, well, there are laws against not being a fan of Doctor Who in England, so, there's not really a whole lot I can do about it.

R: Right.

S: What do you think of Peter Capaldi?

El: (Gasps) I love him! I'm really, really excited! I'm really excited.

R: Oh my god ... yeah.

El: I'm really excited to see an older Doctor. The Doctors have been very young for a while now, and ...

S: Yeah, this Doctor's almost exactly my age.

B: That's true!

J: Hey, Elise, I'm curious as well, do you have any goals right now? Like, where do you want to take.

El: I'm so making this up as I go along. Somebody comes up to me and asks, "You like, you should probably start a website. You'd break a lot of sites." And I'm like, "Yeah, I should probably do that, shouldn't I?" Science Channel comes along. "You should do a TV show with us." "Yeah, alright, I should probably do that too!" I just, I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm so clueless. I'm just having fun, and I'm doing things that I like to do, and it's great.

J: Yeah, I think it lives and dies on the quality of the content. I mean, you're a fantastic writer; you clearly can make the concepts accessible and fun to read. I read your website all the time. I think it's fantastic.

S: Well, Elise, it's been wonderful having you on the SGU.

El: Well, thank you for having me. I've had a lot of fun.

S: So, if you haven't, if you're not familiar with her website and Facebook page, it's IFLScience – I Fucking Love Science. Check it out. Her YouTube channel as well. We'll keep an eye out for your upcoming science TV show as well!

El: Thank you!

S: Alright (inaudible)

B: Thanks Elise!

El: Bye.

R: Thanks, Elise.

Science or Fiction (1:02:59)[edit]

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake! You guys have been doing very well recently.

R: Thank you.

S: We'll see if you can keep that up. Item #1: Astronomers have discovered a lone globular cluster, flung from its parent galaxy, traveling through intergalactic space. Item #2: A review of published literature concludes that there is no evidence that modern humans were intellectually or culturally superior to neanderthals. And item #3: A new analysis finds that about 20% of inmates currently on death row are likely innocent and could potentially have their sentences overturned. Evan, go first.

E: Astronomers discovered a lone globular cluster, and it's been flung from its parent galaxy, traveling through intergalactic space. Well, I don't see a problem necessarily with this. I suppose the exciting part of this is that they've been able to determine that a lone globular cluster has been flung from its parent galaxy. Perhaps something they've never observed before, but now they have.

What I've been seeing on the new Cosmos, and, frankly, the old Cosmos is they talk about things kind of getting flung in all kinds of directions if you pay attention to what they're saying. So I don't see a problem with that one.

The next one, "Published literature concluding there's no evidence that modern humans were intellectually or culturally superior to neanderthals." Those are neandertals. They're saying that there's none. So I guess what we've been, it's all been perception up 'till now. Or it's all been, just assumptions. Yeah, I don't have a problem with this one either.

The last one, "20% of inmates currently on death row are likely innocent and could potentially have their sentences overturned." Well, I don't know about this one. I think 20% might be a little bit high there. Boy, there's talk of death row has been in the news lately. There's a very bad botched execution that took place in Oklahoma.

B: Oh yeah!

E: Just the other day, that made the news, and it was horrific, because they're trying a new combination of drugs, and it just did not go as planned. And this person actually suffered horribly on his way to suffering an eventual heart attack and dying. So, the end result worked out, but getting there was cruel and unusual, I think some might argue.

I don't know that the 20% is the right number here. You know, boy, I would hope that anybody on death row these days, and I don't mean to get on the soap box about this, but you wouldn't put someone to death unless you had absolutely 100% assurance DNA, anything else that is required to be certain that this person earned their sentence. And I don't think, I think 20 percent's just too high. I'm gonna say that one's the fiction.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

R: I don't know anything about globular clusters. But ...

B: You should!

R: I know, Bob. I knew you would get angry about this. But that's why I have you in my life, so I don't have to constantly have on hand information about globular clusters. When in doubt, I just call Bob.

The neanderthal thing, it's the only thing that's shocking to me is that ... the only reason why this might be a fiction is because like, this would be really shocking if a review of the literature came to the opposite conclusion because as far as I know, all of the literature thus far has declared that neanderthals were way better. Humans, modern humans probably just were thugs who ...

E: We were better at beating up the neanderthals than they were at beating us up.

R: Basically, yeah. Like, we just took all the resources and beat the crap out of the highly refined neanderthals, and that's history.

So, we get to the 20% of inmates on death row are likely innocent, and could potentially have their sentences overturned. I think it's unfortunate that this one is the fiction, because I don't want people going away with the false assumption that our criminal justice system is at all appropriate. But I just, I do think that – as Evan said – I think that the percentage is high. I think it's probably more like 5% of people are being murdered by the government for no reason as opposed to 20%. But, anyway, I do think that that's the fiction.

S: Bob?

B: Globular clusters? That's really cool. Globular clusters, as we all know, are clusters of lots of stars.

E: Wow! That was a back handed slap.

B: Nah. Perhaps ...

R: I'd like to point out that I said that globular clusters better than Bob.

B: Yeah, she did. I stumbled a little bit. True, I'll give you that, but that's all I'll give you. I think there's more than like 100,000 stars on average in a lot of them, or maybe a million. But they're all gravitationally bound, of course, and they're very ancient. I could easily see perhaps a cluster ... ah, who knows?

I think they orbit like, in the halo around the core. So I don't think they would normally, they could get too close to the supermassive black hole in the center. But if they did, sure, a bunch of them would, could survive, and be easily flung out. Maybe more likely, it would be a close encounter with another galaxy that could cause them to fly out. So I see that as totally plausible.

Modern humans and neanderthals; yeah, what everyone said I think makes a lot of sense. Everything I've been hearing over the years is that they're not these brutish cavemen that we initially thought they were; knuckle-draggers and all. But the fact that they are indistinguishable intellectually and culturally is really cool. And I'm totally buying that. That makes sense to me.

And then, yeah, and again, this is kind of like an awesome Science or Fiction for me, like Rebecca and Evan. And again, the third one doesn't make any, doesn't make as much sense at all as the other two. So I'm gonna have to go with that. But, like those guys, yeah, 5% sounds much more reasonable. Maybe closer to 4.9%, I think is a better number. But I think that one is definitely fiction.

S: And Jay.

J: (British accent) Well, well, well. (American accent) I sit on top of everybody's comments ...

B: (Laughs) Standing on the shoulders of giants.


J: Because of Bob, I have learned what a globular cluster is. Thanks Bob; I had no idea.

B: Really?

J: Of course it's a bunch of – no, I knew that it was a bunch of stars.

B: Okay. That's good enough.

J: I didn't know how much of a dork you were about them.

R: You knew it was globular in shape.


B: And a kind of cluster. And in a glob-like shape.

J: Okay, so this whole thing about the literature, and people reading, and humans, and these neanderthals ...

B: People reading!

R: I'm against it!

J: Steve, seriously. They keep changing their minds, you know? And I'm fully supportive of science and everything, but this seems like, you know, they find more information; and they update what they say; then they do more research; and they find more information; then they update what they say again; this just keeps getting ...

E: Yeah. Hey, science!

J: You know, Ev? It's frustrating for people like me! I just want to know what it is.

E: All of us!

J: Know the final answer. But there is no final answer! So, all these Science or Fictions that we've been doing throughout the years could be overturned next year. (Bob laughs) Anyway ...

E: It's a good point.

J: And through this wonderful process of science, Steve is trying to sell us on this idea that neanderthals weren't these terrible monsters that we had to possibly eat, but definitely kill to get rid of these bastards. And I read what ... I think it was a couple of weeks ago. Yeah. We screwed them out into oblivion, which is another thing here. I don't know. Like, I'm confused about the idea that there could have been two human-like creatures living at the same time, and that they were both smart, they both had culture and everything. And this one got beaten out by the other.

Maybe that does make sense. And of course it was us, because we're here! So the real thing here is, how much, how cool was their culture? How strong was it compared to ours? You know, how rich was it? And how intelligent were they? And nobody really knows! So how could I say this one is not true? You know?

I'm gonna go with the group and go with the last one; and say that 20% of inmates, sure, that makes sense that that number's way too high. I would think it would be more like a half a percentage. So, that one's the fiction.

S: Alright, so you guys are all in agreement this week. We'll take these in order. Astronomers have discovered a lone globular cluster flung from its parent galaxy traveling through intergalactic space. You guys all think this one is science. Now, had you considered here that the interesting bit is not that a globular cluster was flung from its parent galaxy, but that astronomers saw it. A lone globular cluster in intergalactic space.

R: Meh.

B: I mean, I figured it wasn't that far from its parent galaxy, and they could calculate its trajectory, and then say, "Oh! Must have been part of that galaxy." I just figured. That's how it went.

S: Now, this one is science. They did find a globular cluster. So this was, this has escaped from the giant elliptical galaxy M87. The globular cluster is HVGC1.

B: Ooh! Great name.

S: Hyper velocity globular cluster. It's going really fast in our general direction.

E: Uh oh!

S: Yeah, don't worry about it.

(Bob laughs)

S: How many globular clusters does the Milky Way galaxy have, Bob?

B: Oh shit. Is it like, shit, 20?

R: Bob is genuinely concerned he's not gonna get this right.


E: Come on, Bob. Extra credit.

S: What, did you say? About 20?

B: Yeah.

S: 150.

B: Ooh! Okay.

E: Wow! That's a lot.

R: Bob, as my go to expert on globular clusters, I'm severely disappointed right now.

S: Yeah.

B: I am too. Something basic that I should have known.

S: But Bob, you didn't, did you read this item?

B: Nope, but I saw the pretty picture!

S: You did.

E: What is the?

S: So, you're right in that this was probably kicked out because of an interaction between two galaxies, but the elliptical galaxy M87 is a giant galaxy that is probably the fusion of two other galaxies.

B: Yeah, okay.

S: Because there are two ...

B: Super massive black holes!

S: Super massive black holes at its center, and it's probably the interaction with these two black holes ...

B: Ah-h!

S: that spit out this globular cluster.

B: Okay, cool!

S: Yeah, pretty darn cool. Okay, we'll move on to #2. A review of published literature concludes that there is no evidence that modern humans were intellectually or culturally superior to neanderthals. I've decided to just go with the spelling and pronunciation "thals" and screw "tals."

B: Attaboy!

R: Wrong! Wrong!

B: 'Cause they did go ...

S: Classic.

B: They did go back to Neanderthal', now, right? I mean they didn't ...

S: Whatever. I've seen every permutation of spelling and pronunciation; so screw it. I'm just sticking with the classic neanderthals.

R: I've been on the neadertal side since the first time I looked it up in the Oxford English dictionary, and realized that I could look way smarter and more annoying ...

S: Exactly

R: ... if I said neandertal.

B: Well one out of two ain't bad.

S: Now, there are lots of studies comparing neanderthals to modern – anatomically modern – humans, and arguing that anatomically modern humans had more cooperative hunting, more sophisticated hunting. They had abstract representative communication. And that these things were not in evidence in neanderthals.

However, what this new review showed is that that conclusion is probably not true. And you know what the bias is?

E: The bias?

S: Why ... authors make a specific argument for why there was this misperception that neanderthals were less developed than anatomically modern humans in terms of their cultural behavior.

B: Was it when they first put the bones together, they did it improperly, and they just thought it was a knuckle-dragging ..

S: No! Well, that's true. What the first neanderthal skeleton had rickets or something.

B: Ah! Yes.

E: Wow.

S: And then, so, it looked hunched over. So that they thought that, but this has nothing to do with that. So, the problem is that they've compared neanderthal man from 300,000 years ago to anatomically modern humans from 30,000 years ago.

B: That's not fair!

E: That doesn't seem fair.

S: That's not fair! You can't just ... so ...

R: (Laugh) Not fair.

E: (Accent) It's just not fair!

S: But if you ...

E: (Accent) It's not fair!

S: (Accent) It's not fair. (American) If you compare humans and neanderthals from 300,000 years ago, they're the same! But in any case, there is evidence of cooperative hunting among neanderthals, such as herding animals to their deaths, you know. Which would require cooperation and communication and sophisticated hunting techniques, and also abstract communication; pretty much everything that modern humans do, there are examples of among neanderthals that they did it.

So the authors argue that you can't make the argument that anatomically modern humans were simply superior to neanderthals, and that's why they displaced them. We still don't know, really. We don't have a final answer as to why modern humans displaced neanderthals. It was probably for a host of complicated reasons, maybe having to do with the size of their villages, their fertility rates, interbreeding, and maybe also killing them off, etcetera. But that, I don't really perceive consensus on that question at this point in time.

So all of this means that a new analysis finds that about 20% of inmates currently on death row are likely innocent, and could potentially have their sentences overturned is the fiction. What do you guys each think the number is? Bob and Rebecca, you both said 5%.

R: Yeah.

S: Jay, you said, what, 0.1%?

J: Half a percent, yeah.

E: 4%

S: Huh? The answer is ... 4%.

E: Ooh!

S: And did you guys read this study?

R: Yes.

S: Ah.

E: Yes.


E: Well...

J: I read nothing!

S: Yeah, 4% is still alarming. That's one in 25 inmates on death row.

E: That's 4% too high.

S: Yeah.

B: Well, and for me, that's the ultimate reason why I don't agree with capital punishment, because that mistake is made, it continues to be made, and once you make that mistake, there's no going back.

S: No backsies. I have to find new, you're reading too many science news items. I gotta find new sources.

E: We're reading too much?

B: I don't know, Steve. For a while there, it seemed like you had some super secret source of science news from the future that I was like, "Where the fuck are you getting that stuff?"

R: Yeah, recently things have been really ...

B: Regression to the mean I think.

S: Yeah, probably. Just a statistical quirk.

B: I like this quirk.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:18:09)[edit]

S: So, Jay, give us a quote.

J: This is a quote sent in by a listener named Dimitry, from Moscow, in Russia.

E: Cool!

J: Yeah, it is cool! You guys know who Terry Pratchett is?

S: Oh yeah.

B: Yeah.

E: Yes.

J: Yes, I actually think I had a Terry Pratchett quote not too long ago. But Dimitry sent in a really good one. But Terry Pratchett, for those of you who don't know, is an English author of fantasy novels, comic works. He's best known for Discworld. He has about 40 volumes.

The quote is,

The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they've found it.

(Shouting) Terry Pratchett!

R: That was a good one!

B: Yeah, very good one.

J: Thank you.

E: Yeah.

Announcements (1:18:53)[edit]

  • Intelligence Squared: May 7thDebate: Is Death Final:Against: Steven Novella and Sean CarrollFor: Eben Alexander and Raymond MoodyLive Stream here:
  • Register for TAM: Use the registration code: SGUTAM2014 for a $25 discount
  • May 9th: Steven Novella in Chicago,Ritz Carlton, 7pm, meet and greet in the hotel lounge

S: So, everyone, don't forget about The Amaz!ng Meeting.

B: Ooh.

S: July, Las Vegas. I just heard that Bill Nye the Science Guy's gonna be there.

B: Oh! Awesome!

E: Oh my god!

S: Bill Nye. So he's awesome. And also, Daniel Dennett, and tons of other great speakers; and of course, the SGU. Check it out. And when you register, please use the SGUTAM2014 code, and you'll get a $25 discount.

R: Also, I'm gonna be at CONvergence, which is where we have our regular, yearly SkepchickCon, which is all panels of women and science and skepticism. You can pick up a badge at It's July 3rd through 6 in Minneapolis.

S: I actually have two events next week that our listeners may be interested in. If you live in the Chicago area, I will be in Chicago on Friday night, May 9th. And I will be available on Friday night for a get-together. So we're gonna be meeting up in the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago at 7 PM. We're just gonna meet in the lounge / bar, you know, whatever, and hang out. If enough people show up, I might be persuaded to give a talk of some kind. But at the very least, it'll be a fun meet and greet.

Also, I will be involved in a debate on Wednesday night. This is Wednesday, May 7th. This is a debate on life after death. Sean Carroll and I will be on one side, arguing that death is final, that there is no evidence of life after death. And on the other side will be Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who authored Proof of Heaven; and Raymond Moody, the author of the book, Life After Life.

This will be streamed live. So you can watch the debate livestreaming. We will have the link to the stream in our show notes. I'll also announce it on Neurologica. And we're gonna try to, in addition to providing the link, we'll try to just embed the stream right in the blog post so you could, you know, check out our Facebook page; check out my blog post; we'll have the information there, and hopefully we'll have either the link, or if all works well, the embedded stream itself. Should be a lot of fun. So, check it out.

Well, thank you for joining me this week, everyone.

R: Thank you, Steve.

J: Thank you!

B: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thank you, doctor.

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Neanderthals were just as intelligent as modern humans
  • 4% of inmates currently on death row are likely innocent
  • The founder of I Fucking Love Science faces major harassment for being a woman[1]
  • The organic industry is engaged in research informed, and intentionally deceptive marketing[2]
  • People are mixing nutritional supplements with medicine and suffering side effects[3]


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